Battle of the (Virtual) Bands Guitar Hero 3 Faces Rock Band Challenge

Battle of the (Virtual) Bands Guitar Hero 3 Faces Rock Band Challenge
Music history is littered with rivalries, from the Beatles and Stones to Kanye and Fiddy. Now a pair of music videogames — RedOctane’s reigning champion Guitar Hero III and Harmonix’s upstart Rock Band — are preparing to wage war.

At both Sony and Microsoft’s recent holiday preview events, the two titles got prime locations across the room from each other. Their presence was marked by blaring metal, lengthy line-ups and massive crowds chattering excitedly about GHIII’s rad Les Paul controller and Rock Band’s awesome drum kit while rocking out to "Paint It Black” or "Wave of Mutilation.” The buzz has been deafening. But the opening act is over and now both companies must capitalize on the unexpected mainstream splash of the first two Guitar Hero games, which they made together. Of course, that success is why their collaboration is no more.

When the first GH game dropped in 2005, nobody thought it’d break out of the cult category that housed similar rhythm-based games like Dance, Dance Revolution. At least not in North America — that shit has been big in Japan since 1997’s PaRappa the Rapper.

But the easy-to-learn, hard-to-master Guitar Hero gameplay and, more importantly, its cool-ass controller, won a fervent fan base. By the time the sequel dropped the following year — first on the PS2 and later in inaugural next-gen form for Xbox 360 — it had become a full-fledged phenomenon and wound up the year’s fifth biggest-seller, not bad for a genre that had never gone beyond niche.

"Guitar Hero is such an easy game to just pick up and play,” explains RedOctane’s Bryan Lam. "It’s not as intimidating as a first-person shooter or an RPG. You don’t have to punch Y to jump. It started out with the hardcore gamers but word of mouth spread like wildfire. Then the mass market got behind it. It’s like the new karaoke.”

Once it hit that mainstream tipping point, Guitar Hero was suddenly being played at house parties, tournaments were held at bars and it even became a staple on tour buses. But such growth comes with pains.

The two companies responsible were small ventures. RedOctane made game peripherals until 2005 when they got into the publishing business. They’d created that now-iconic guitar controller and needed a developer to build a game around it. So they approached Harmonix, then-known for critically acclaimed, commercially-negligible music games like 1999’s FreQuency and 2003’s Amplitude. The former focused on electronic music (Crystal Method, Roni Size, Orbital) while the latter was rockier (Garbage, Weezer and David Bowie) and they also created Karaoke Revolution, Time magazine’s 2003 game of the year. Oh, and collectively Harmonix staffers play in 33 different bands.

Clearly the company had a handle on this fledgling genre. But where previous efforts were somewhat abstract, Harmonix’ John Drake says Guitar Hero, "touched more direct of a nerve by letting you physically feel what it’s like to play music.” But fast forward to 2006 and the corporate sharks were circling. First game giant Activision bought RedOctane for $100 million and a few months later Harmonix was bought by MTV, who saw music games as their perfect entry point into the industry. With different parent companies, the partnership went splitsville. "Both companies were growing, the games were doing really well, and they just went in their separate directions,” says Drake, quipping, "two little companies being bought by two huge companies — it’s the American dream.”

RedOctane hired NeverSoft, the team behind the Tony Hawk franchise, to take the reigns on the third Guitar Hero while Harmonix and MTV hooked-up with Electronic Arts to publish Rock Band.

Both games share similarly stylized graphics, vertical-scrolling colour-based gameplay and have largely eschewed the notorious "as made famous by” cover songs since so many musicians have themselves become fans and the labels have realised its moneymaking potential.

"It’s a great source of revenue and great exposure for the bands,” says Drake. "And it’s fun to watch people rock out to your music and play real guitar rather than air guitar. Or, uh, plastic guitar rather than air guitar.”

Their original songs range from the obvious (Radiohead, Metallica, Strokes) to the obscure (Montreal’s Priestess). Sex Pistols even re-recorded "Anarchy in the UK” for GHIII while Rock Band plans to release Nirvana’s Nevermind as a playable download.

The big difference is that Rock Band is largely based on Guitar Hero II’s big advancement — co-op play with lead and rhythm guitar (or bass, if it’s a Primus track). Rock Band turns co-op gaming up to 11 by including guitar, bass, drums and a microphone. It’s full-meal deal karaoke with an equally full price tag (US$169).

"[Rock Band] is closer to what playing music is like,” says Drake. "It‘s not something you traditionally do alone. It’s not about competition, it’s about collaboration and working together.” But that means Rock Band is inherently a party game and who knows how well the game holds up online or when you don’t have a crew of friends over to virtually jam with. The additional instruments may be an evolution of the series, but one of the beautiful things about Guitar Hero is its stripped down simplicity.

Regardless, the winner of this battle will be gamers. "There’s a lot of room in this genre to grow,” says Lam, "[besides] it’s always good to have a little competition, it spurs creativity.” "I think the rivalry is a little silly,” agrees Drake. "Nobody’s snipping wires. The games are about having fun. At the end of the day you’re playing a guitar to your favourite music. Enjoy yourself.”